Combating cassava mosaic
Global plant genetics policy and research unite with emergency operations against lethal crop disease
Bujumbura/Rome – Just as a system for the world wide exchange of plant genetic resources was made operational by the international community in Rome this week, farmers in Burundi kicked off a new season, planting cassava free of a deadly disease that brought hunger to thousands of people in the Great Lakes region.
For a long time, African farmers were not especially alarmed when the leaves of their cassava plants occasionally became patchy and failed to grow as big as usual. They tended to enjoy the sweeter taste of them, rather than worry about Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD), the virus behind it. The damage it caused to yields, never exceeding 25 percent, was deemed acceptable.
In 1989 however, things changed for the worst when an aggressive strain of CMD appeared in Uganda, unleashing an epidemic that decimated harvests throughout the Great Lakes region. For a region already disrupted by civil war and struck by climatic adversities, such losses were disastrous, particularly because of the heavy dependence of its people on subsistence agriculture.
In Uganda, for instance, where CMD has destroyed 150,000 hectares of cassava since the early nineties, a loss estimated at 60 million US$ per annum, food shortages resulting from the disease led to localised famine in 1993 and 1997.
The urgency of developing disease-free cassava and getting it to the people who needed it most, led to an unlikely, but highly fruitful alliance of genetic researchers in their laboratories and agronomists more accustomed to the rough life of emergencies.
“An excellent example of the sustainable use of plant genetic resources,” says Shakeel Bhatti, Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. At a high-level meeting in Rome this week, delegates from the Treaty’s more than 110 member countries made its multilateral system for the exchange of plant genetic resources operational - an important contribution to sharing the benefits of plant genetic material globally. Or, in case of the Great Lakes region, to fighting CMD.
“Plant genetic resources are fundamental to combat hunger,” Mr Bhatti adds. “In the case of a disease like CMD, or challenges such as climate change, it is the genetic diversity that counts, because it provides the means to adapt to change. Therefore it is extremely important to conserve agricultural biodiversity and work together to make genetic resources available to farmers and researchers in all continents. That is exactly what the Treaty aims to achieve.”
Tackling the CMD epidemic began in the laboratories of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria. Through a process of genetic selection, starting with 100,000 genetic varieties collected from all over the world, its scientists developed a series of disease-free cassava seedlings, which were distributed to a wide array of organizations involved in the combat against CMD.
One of them, FAO, developed a regional campaign to boost the ongoing efforts of individual countries in the Great Lakes region. The initiative was launched in 2006, with the financial support of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO).
A new season
Its aim was to bring CMD-free planting materials to vulnerable households in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The initiative targeted people uprooted by conflict and struck by recent drought spells and erratic rainfall, in particular those returnees who, thanks to the region’s relative peace, are coming home.
“In Burundi the people said: ‘we see that peace is coming, so how about our stomachs now?’” says Salvator Kaboneka, an FAO agronomist involved in the operation.
Thanks to rapid multiplication and distribution of disease-free cassava achieved over the past few years, the operation reached its final stage: mass distribution to the population.
With the 1,600 hectares available, and with each hectare producing enough cuttings for around 150 families, almost 250,000 families were expected to start growing healthy cassava again at the beginning the 2007 planting season in October.
‘By the end of next year, this country might be self-sufficient in cassava again,’ says ECHO’s Eric Pitois. ‘And that, I think, is really a success.”